On the verge of Colorado’s third teacher strike, one mountain district waits in limbo

Teachers in the Park County district in Colorado’s high country are poised to strike after months of unresolved salary disputes with the district — but no date as been set as both sides hope last-minute talks will yield common ground.

Teachers in this small district in the high valley of South Park voted overwhelmingly last month to authorize a strike. This week they received clearance from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to do so. The district and the teachers have agreed to meet to try to reach a deal before teachers actually walk off the job, but as of Friday, the two sides have not been able to find a date.

“We want to avoid a strike. We understand that it might be necessary,” said Doug Freeman, a fourth-grade teacher and a member of the union mediation team. “The goal is for us is to have an open and transparent dialogue with them so we can avoid a strike.”

A Park County teacher strike is looming even though the school board in May approved raises for this school year that average 6.5%. Not all teachers saw their pay go up by that much, and educators insist the district can afford more. For their part, board members say increasing salaries would put the district on shaky financial ground. Teachers have also been pushing for a new contract that gives them more say in salary decisions. The last contract did not allow for collective bargaining over salaries. This could be an area for negotiation.

“I’m encouraged that we can speak directly, and our initial conversation was that we want something to work,” said school board President Kim Bundgaard. “The professional agreement and them having a voice was a priority for them. We have a draft, and we hope we can come to a conclusion.”

The rural district that serves just 600 students joins a wave of teacher unrest that started in 2018 with statewide teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona and that shows little sign of abating. Also this week, teachers in Chicago, the nation’s third largest city, voted to authorize a strike.

Colorado went 24 years without a teacher strike. A Park County teacher strike could be the state’s third in less than 18 months. Educators in Pueblo struck for a week in May 2018, followed in February 2019 by teachers in Denver, the state’s largest district.

“There’s a common thread of we have to do better for our students,” said Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, the state teachers union, which is providing support to Park County educators. “When teachers are not paid a salary that allows them to live and work in the community, that’s not good for students. When there is high turnover in the teacher ranks, that’s not good for students.”

But Taya Mastrobuono, president of the South Park Education Association, wants to be clear that teachers in Park County aren’t considering a strike just because teachers in Denver or Pueblo did, even though educators there have talked to veterans of recent strikes to better understand what to expect.

“This is an issue across the nation,” she said, referring to teacher pay and working conditions. “I don’t think it influenced us that much. These issues have been going on for a while, and our voices needed to be heard.”

The Park County Re-2 district based in Fairplay serves a little more than 600 students and employs roughly 40 teachers. Like many rural Colorado districts, Park County operates on a four-day school week to save money, and teachers work long hours with a school day that runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Average teacher pay in the district is just over $41,000, according to data from the Colorado Department of Education. That’s 28% less than the state average of $56,800 and 30% less than teachers in the more affluent Summit district nearby. Park County salaries are more in line with other districts in the same administrative unit, like Buena Vista, Lake County, and Salida, but still on the low end.

Exacerbating the situation, housing costs have surged in recent years. Fairplay and the surrounding area have long served as bedroom communities for more expensive ski resort areas like Breckenridge, but as Summit County has become unaffordable, demand for housing has increased in Park County as well.

“Several of our new teachers are living with their parents,” Mastrobuono said. “I would not be able to live here if I didn’t have a second income from my husband or if we hadn’t bought our house 16 years ago.”

The teachers union charges that persistent low wages have driven high turnover rates in the district. Ten out of 40 teachers are new this year. While some of those new teachers replaced retirees or people who moved for family reasons, Mastrobuono said the district had four “one-and-done” teachers last school year, that is, teachers who served for only one year before quitting.

“We struggle to attract and retain good educators for our students,” Mastrobuono said. “Our students are the ones who suffer when good educators leave because they can’t afford to live here.”

The most recent state data, from last year, shows teacher turnover in Park County to be slightly less than the state average, but Freeman said teachers will continue to leave for districts with better pay or lower cost of living unless something changes.

Adding to teacher frustration, their contract has not allowed for bargaining over wages, only a “meet-and-confer” process. Whether teachers should have a say in how much they get paid has been one of the major points of contention between the district and the union and led to the cancelation of several potential meetings in recent months.

“We’ve had the door shut in our face,” Mastrobuono said earlier this month. “They have refused. The lack of transparency has been a huge issue for our employees.”

In April, union members rejected a tentative agreement to continue a meet-and-confer process for 2019-20 salaries, and in May, the school board approved a new salary schedule without union input. The most recent contract expired in June, resulting in the end of the collective bargaining agreement. The union filed a lawsuit, since withdrawn, and the district stopped collecting union dues from paychecks.

The union is seeking a $6,000 across-the-board raise for all district employees, including custodians, food service workers, and bus drivers who are not represented by the teachers union. That’s about $4,000 more per employee than the board-approved increases.

As is common in labor disputes, the two sides don’t share common budgetary assumptions.

Union leaders point to the millions of dollars the district rolls over at the end of each fiscal year as evidence it can afford more substantial raises. With roughly 80 employees, a $6,000 across-the-board raise would amount to less than $500,000 a year.

But Bundgaard says the district needs this money to pay expenses throughout the year without taking out loans, as some districts do, to bridge gaps in property tax collections. Park County gets nearly three-quarters of its revenue from property taxes, a larger local share than many districts that get more state revenue.

“What is referred to as a reserve is actually operating capital,” Bundgaard said.

After freezing salaries and positions during the recession, the district has added a dean, a special education teacher, and a counselor whose salary used to be paid out of a state grant, and officials want to hire more paraprofessionals. Preschool teachers, who are not part of the union, were included in recent raises.

And the district’s mill levy override, a special kind of property tax, is set to expire soon.

“This board has tried to be pretty fiscally prudent,” Bundgaard said. “We’ve added personnel, we’ve added programming in the last couple years. Our full commitment has increased, and we don’t want to cut anyone.”

Both sides see more funding for education as part of the long-term solution.

In another year or two, “either the state gets it together in terms of school finance, or the district will be in a position to go to the voters” for a property tax increase, Bundgaard said.

“Education as a whole in the state is underfunded,” Freeman said.